Choosing the Community

“Here in America, we don’t guarantee equal outcomes… but we do expect that everybody gets an equal shot,” President Obama said when introducing America’s College Promise, a program to guarantee two years of free education for qualified students. He announced the proposal on January 9th at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, a symbolic nod to Tennessee Promise, the predecessor to Obama’s national proposal.

Noting that Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, successfully passed and recently implemented similar legislation in the state, Obama urged passage of the plan through Congress, “because opening the doors of higher education shouldn’t be a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is an American issue.” Despite Tennessee Republican leaders avoiding Obama’s previous engagements in the state, both Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Gov. Haslam were in attendance for the president’s speech, a promising sign of bipartisanship and cooperation on this issue.

If Obama’s proposed legislation is passed, over 9 million community college students could have the chance to receive a degree without paying any tuition. With only 31 percent of Americans currently educated at a college level, higher education in the U.S. is in a dire state. Compared to other developed countries, the United States ranks nearly last in terms of adults holding degrees. In just one generation, the United States dropped from leading the world in graduation rates to stagnating in the middle of the pack among developed nations.

Moreover, a college degree has become essential in securing a job in today’s market. Compared to the national unemployment rate of 5.7 percent, those with a college degree had an unemployment rate significantly lower at 2.8 percent. Still, just as a college degree has become increasingly important, student loans have become regrettably ubiquitous. According to the New York Federal Reserve, student loan debt has risen to over $1 trillion dollars, while student loan default rates are projected to reach 25.3 percent by 2016. By 2020, economist predict that nearly two thirds of American jobs will require some level of education and training beyond high school. Clearly, the United States must adapt to this shifting reality.

Despite this economic driver, such a dramatic subsidy at the federal level, even at the state level, is quite exceptional and rare. Spearheading this change, the state of Tennessee has shown the country that addressing these challenges is possible. “We were the first state to offer a two year education completely free, so I think a lot of eyes turned to our state pretty quickly in terms of that front,” Jayme Place, Education Policy Analyst for Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, said in an interview with The Politic.

A proper understanding of Obama’s proposal must also explore its relation to the original Tennessee legislation, but also recognize how they differ. Tennessee is a model the whole country can look towards to understand not only why addressing higher education is so important, but also how subsidizing it can be feasible. According to Place, the economic consequences of lacking a strong educated workforce forced Tennessee to respond. “The governor, when talking to businesses gets told quite a bit from businesses that we would love to move to Tennessee and set up shop there, but we are really concerned about the quality of your workforce” said Place. “With that, the governor really switched gears, transitioning from K-12 [programming] to especially… post secondary and also more recently… getting more adults to go back to school.”

In developing Tennessee Promise, Place points to the work of Randy Boyd, who in 2009, partnered with the Governor in Knoxville to create tnAchieves, a last dollar scholarship that also provides a mentor to students. Boyd is determined to shift the education conversation from K-12 focus to K-J: kindergarten to job. And now it seems as if the whole nation may follow suit.

Boyd realized that Tennessee “would have enough dollars through lottery money to offer to any graduating senior the opportunity to receive a last dollar scholarship for either a technical school or a community college.” Although “only about 50 percent [of students] actually need the money, many because they are low income end up getting their money through the Pell Grant Program, but it created a place that we could say that you will be able to go to school for free,” said Boyd, and he added that using “that term alone really changes the culture.”

Rather than investing in four-year colleges and universities, community colleges have just recently been brought into the conversation as a more viable and practical solution to America’s higher education deficit. In an interview with The Politic, Professor Elizabeth Carroll, Director of the Education Studies Program at Yale, highlighted that “over the past really ten, even twenty years, we have seen a much greater emphasis on college as something that everyone should aspire to do.” However, there is much debate about what form that type of education should take.  Although today “the economic reality [is] that increasingly a high school diploma is only a ticket to a low wage job, at the same time, there have been certain sectors where… a four year liberal arts education does not necessarily prepare people for these 21st century jobs,” said Carroll.

Unfortunately, today even graduates from a four-year programs struggle to find employment in the current economic climate. Here is where a two-year community college or technical degree can really close that gap. “The community college piece has been popping up as a sort of middle part, as we do want everybody to have the training and education they need to be successful in our economy,” Carroll explained, adding, “the shift to community college emphasis has a lot to do with the ability of those institutions to step up and provide some credentialing, some training that would prepare people to step in and take some of those jobs.”

Although Obama credits his America’s College Promise idea to Governor Haslam’s plan, Place sees Obama’s program as “pretty different, in that we would say, yes TN Promise provides money, but the key component is that we have now enlisted about 9,000 volunteers from across our state to work alongside kids who otherwise wouldn’t be pursuing post-secondary education.” Mentoring is “one of the key components of TN Promise… that the President’s proposal does not include.”

Tennessee’s Promise has been able to secure “legislators, business people, CEOs—just really cool people getting to walk alongside a student… exposing [their] world to someone who isn’t familiar with it and providing expertise.” As someone who has “walked through the college process before, you can be an encourager and really a task master,” stated Place. Through her role as a mentor, Place highlighted that “this is a great way to be connected back to kids, who for the most part would struggle to pay for college. It has just been an awesome experience… to be part of the implementing of the program, as well as creating and crafting the program” from a policy side.

Another difference between Tennessee Promise and the President’s proposal is that Obama’s initiative would also cover tuition for non-traditional students, beyond just recent high school graduates. As the average age at community college is 28, many argue that it is critical to reach out beyond just high school grads. Conversely, older students are more likely to drop out of college compared to recent high school graduates. Nearly 40 percent of non-traditional students actually complete a degree, compared to about 60 percent of those who start under the age of 20.

Community colleges have also adapted strategies to ensure students actually graduate. In an interview with The Politic, Evelyn Gard, Director of Public Affairs for Gateway Community College in New Haven, emphasized Gateway’s strategy to of “doing some proactive things, like our middle college where [Gateway] actually goes into the high schools and partners with them… so [students] earn college credit while they are in high school.” Moreover, she stressed “interventions in the classroom,” such as “study groups and cohorts, and tutoring centers.” The cohort model has been very successful, as students “are in a group with people they come to know and trust, then they are doing all the studying and moving through together. And that is very effective.”

Regardless of the politics behind the policy, ultimately community colleges have a special role within the broader landscape of higher education in the U.S. Speaking on behalf of Gateway, Gard placed the work of community colleges into a broader context, maintaining that community colleges help “the community at large, because once you get these people out, working, or getting their careers faster, they will also pay taxes faster, they are going to buy property and spend money, so we see it as an economic driver.” Community colleges also have a special place within the economy “as [they] are in touch with the business community, and look at where the jobs are, and then respond to that,” Gard added. Beyond just the economic prospects, a community college degree is a great way to prepare students for a four year university, noting that “community college students graduate at a higher rate than the native students who start their at freshman year,” said Gard. Many students at Gateway transfer to four year programs, Gard said: “so they have gone on to all kinds of colleges and universities.”

Although Obama’s proposal is suspected to founder in Congress, the fact that this was originally a Republican-backed idea is slightly promising, in that individual states may choose to follow suit even if the plan fails at a national level. More important is the point that education transcends any political party. Professor Carroll noted that rather than bipartisanship, one should see this as “cross-partisanship,” “the idea that people with different political ideology don’t have to necessarily compromise… They could just have very different reasons for ending up at the priority that they have.”

However, Professor Carroll noted that “there are a lot of Republicans who view education… as more of a state legislation thing” and “the initiative that Governor Haslam has laid out would be something that people could support only at a state level.” For example, at Obama’s speech at Pellissippi Senator Alexander stressed that he could support such proposal only at the state level.

Here at Yale, it is easy to forget that for many a wide range of educational opportunities simply does not exist. Professor Carroll wisely placed Yale’s role in educational policy into a broader context. “Obviously when we do not have a K-12 education system that equitably educates people…. there is a lot outside of Yale’s control.” As the United States works to address the inequalities and systemic injustices of our education system, “in the meantime, the community college opportunity can be a really important middle path to step up and provide good options for the kids [regardless] of whatever K-12 opportunities they had.”

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